Living on a Smaller Colorado River Water Supply

Arizona, California, and Nevada are proving they can live with less.
Vermilion Flycatcher. Photo: Mike Henry/Audubon Photography Awards

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In 2023, Arizona, California and Nevada are on track as a group to use less Colorado River water than they have in nearly 40 years, as recently pointed out by John Fleck—renowned author on Colorado River issues. That’s great news, due in part to late summer storms in the Southwest, and the extraordinarily wet winter of 2022-2023 that not only helped to raise the Colorado River’s emptying reservoirs, but also gave Southern California’s cities a gusher of in-state supply, enabling them to use less than their full share of Colorado River water and save it for another day.

Yet the real story here isn’t the past year’s wet weather, but rather the dry years that preceded it. In January 2023, more than 20 years of drought exacerbated by climate change left the Colorado River reservoirs so low that the states had started working with the federal government on emergency measures to reduce the risk of “dead pool,” the point at which so little water remains in the reservoirs that downstream deliveries become impossible. Existing rules, including the 2007 Colorado River operating guidelines, Minute 323 (the 2017 binational Colorado River agreement between the U.S. and Mexico), and the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, allowed federal dam operators to reduce deliveries to the Lower Basin by 617,000 acre-feet. Remarkably, Arizona, California and Nevada are expected by the end of the year to reduce water use even further, more than doubling the required reductions to save a total of nearly 1,600,000 acre-feet water, helped in no small part by the federal Colorado River System Conservation Program that pays water users who volunteer to use less on a temporary basis, as well as the efforts of municipalities like Las Vegas that no longer allow “non-functional turf” and have limited the size of golf courses, which guzzle water.

So while the news has been full of stories about fractious relations in the Colorado River Basin—everybody loves a good water fight—actual water use tells a different story. As Fleck himself has pointed out, “when people have less water, they use less water.” The work is certainly far from over, but there is plenty of proof that conservation measures work at scale. The federal government and Basin States need to support water conservation in all sectors. In the Lower Colorado River Basin, Arizona, California and Nevada have a huge lift ahead of them, to figure out how to shrink their water use to the available supply. They are already demonstrating they are capable of big changes, and they will need to do more to keep up as climate change continues to shrink the Colorado River, and to ensure that the needs of Tribes and environmental resources are met. But with the view from late 2023, that looks more possible than ever. That’s great news for everyone who relies on the Colorado River, and birds like the Yuma Ridgway’s Rails, Yellow-Billed Cuckoos and Vermilion Flycatchers that call it home.

(And if you want a refresher on the Colorado River Compact and the way the river’s water has been divvied up, read about The Colorado River Compact at 100.)